As the transformation towards digital and cloud continues its rapid pace, data is becoming one of the most valuable assets for all businesses. However, not all data is created equal, and some data types require more stringent security measures than others.
Plus, with massive cloud migration, organizations are harnessing diverse data types (intellectual property, financial, business confidential, and regulated PII/PCI/PHI data) in increasingly complex environments.
This is where data classification comes in. By categorizing data based on its level of sensitivity, organizations can protect their most valuable information from unauthorized access, disclosure, or modification.
When it comes to data protection, the first step is knowing how to identify and classify data.
Data classification helps you identify high-value data in your enterprise by categorizing it into an agreed set of specific and meaningful categories.
Data classification drives multiple use cases such as data labelling, sensitive data identification, automating protection, compliance, security, access control, and data retention.
Basically speaking, data classification is the ability to label your data.
Data classification levels are a way to categorize data based on its level of sensitivity, so that organizations can determine how it should be protected.
There are typically four levels of data classification:
Public: Data meant for public consumption; does not contain any sensitive information; anyone can view it
Internal: Data intended for use within an organization but should not be shared outside of it.
Confidential: Data containing sensitive information that should be protected from unauthorized access or disclosure.
Highly confidential or super secret: Data containing extremely sensitive information and that should only be accessed by authorized personnel with a need-to-know.
The specific data classification levels used by an organization often vary based on:
It’s important to note that not all data needs to be classified at the same level. For example, customer names and addresses may be classified as “confidential,” while financial information such as credit card numbers may be classified as “highly confidential.” Proper data classification ensures that each type of data is protected according to its level of sensitivity.
Data classification can be a great weapon in an organization’s arsenal for protecting sensitive information against cyber threats. Organizations risk exposing valuable information to issues like unauthorized access, disclosure, or modification if data is not properly classified.
In these cases, several negative consequences can occur, including financial loss, reputational damage, and legal liabilities.
Proper data classification allows organizations to:
Identify their most sensitive data: By categorizing data based on its level of sensitivity, organizations can pinpoint their most valuable and sensitive information and prioritize its protection accordingly.
Implement appropriate security measures: Once data has been classified, organizations can deploy any relevant security measures to protect it from cyber threats. For example, highly confidential data may require more robust encryption, access controls, and monitoring than data classified as public.
Comply with relevant regulations: Many regulations and standards, such as HIPAA, GDPR, and PCI-DSS, require organizations to classify their data and implement appropriate security measures based on its level of sensitivity. Non-compliance with these regulations can lead to fines, legal liabilities, and reputational damage.
Classification labels are a critical part of effective data classification. They help organizations categorize and protect their data by providing a visual representation of its level of sensitivity.
Classification labels may include colors, text labels, and metadata tags.
Classification labels make data classification easier by providing organizations with:
Clear communication: A clear and easy-to-understand way to communicate the level of sensitivity of data to all personnel within an organization. This helps ensure that everyone understands the appropriate level of protection required for different types of data.
Consistency: Consistent application of security controls across different systems and applications. This is important for maintaining the integrity of the data and preventing unauthorized access or disclosure.
Compliance: Meet regulatory and compliance requirements. For example, HIPAA requires that covered entities classify their data as confidential or highly confidential and implement appropriate security measures based on the level of sensitivity.
Efficient management: Help organizations manage their data more efficiently. For example, they can use metadata tags to automate the classification of new data and apply appropriate security controls automatically.
Effective data classification requires careful planning, implementation, and ongoing management.
Some of the best practices for effectively classifying your data include:
Identifying your data assets: The first step in effective data classification is to identify all the data assets that need to be classified. This includes all physical, digital and cloud data, structured and unstructured.
Defining your classification levels: Once you have identified your data assets, you need to define your classification levels based on the level of sensitivity of each type of data. Ensure to consider any regulatory requirements or industry standards that apply to your organization.
Assigning classification labels: Once classification levels are defined, you need to assign appropriate classification labels to each type of data — using metadata tags, text labels, or color codes.
Implementing appropriate security controls: After classifying your data, you need to implement appropriate security controls to protect it from cyber threats. This includes access controls, encryption, monitoring, and incident response procedures.
Training employees: Effective data classification requires buy-in from all employees within an organization, including the C-suite. Make sure to provide training on data classification policies and procedures to ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities.
Regular reviews and updates: Data classification is an ongoing process. Review your data classification policies and procedures as often as possible to ensure they are still effective and up to date.
It’s crucial to note that while most classification methods are better than having none at all, most classification tactics — like end-user, centralized and metadata-driven — can be time-consuming and ineffective.
For best results, you should seek out solutions that use sophisticated machine learning technologies to autonomously scan and categorize data — from financial data to PII/PHI/PCI to intellectual property to confidential business information – wherever it is stored.
The best-of-breed solutions can autonomously identify data, learn how it’s used, and determine whether it’s at risk. Look for a solution that empowers you to know where your data is across unstructured or structured data repositories, email/ messaging applications, cloud or on-premises – all with semantic context.
By following these best practices, organizations can ensure that their sensitive information is classified and protected appropriately, reducing the risk of cyber threats and ensuring compliance with relevant regulations.
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